14 June 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: AND THEN THERE WERE NONE

As I've already mentioned, director Mario Bava - ex-cinematographer, one of the great color stylists of the '60s and '70s, and Italy's best disciple of Alfred Hitchcock - largely invented all the rules of the giallo with 1963's The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1964's Blood and Black Lace, and as befits his preeminent role in the evolution of the style was probably the single best giallo director of them all (only Dario Argento could seriously challenge him for that title). Given all this, I find it pleasing that the film which most revolutionised the genre during its wave of great popularity in the early 1970s should also be a Mario Bava film: as though he was so intimately yoked to the development of gialli that no other filmmaker could possibly bring about a major change to the form.

By this point, the link between gialli and hyper-violence had already been made in small ways, but it was in 1971 that Bava released a film that pushed beyond the levels of gore that had yet been seen in a murder mystery, to become one of the first internationally controversial splatter films (sure, directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis had been shocking American censors for over a decade by this point; but it's with Bava, not Lewis, that we find ourselves on the first stones of the road to the Video Nasties list in Britain). I'd put it this way: prior to this movie, a giallo could have lots of explicit violence, after this film, a giallo must, else it was just an old-fashioned murder mystery.

I'm not trying to be clever by not saying the film's title, by the way. It's just that in this particular case, the title is an unusually hard thing to pin down - by some accounts, this movie has the most different titles, across the various languages where it was released, of any in history. Even in its native Italy, there are multiple titles, including the titles on pre-release advertising, but custom has settled upon Reazione a catena ("Chain Reaction") as the "definitive" Italian title. Among the film's numerous English titles, the commonest are Bay of Blood, given to the uncut version that was banned in Britain and screened only in the grind houses in America, and on home video usually signifies an English-dubbed version, whether uncut or not (the Region 1 DVD marketed under this title is edited by something less than a minute, if my memory serves); or Twitch of the Death Nerve, one of the finest titles in the whole history of the cinema, and I know not where or when it was first applied, though it has come to be used for the English-subtitled home video releases of the film in Italian, nearly always complete and uncut. To make things as straightforward as possible, I'm going to use "Reazione a catena" for the rest of this review.

After a credits sequence that shows us the beautiful woods and decaying buildings surrounding a bay (that does not, at this juncture, appear to be comprised of blood), Reazione a catena gets things moving as quickly as any giallo by opening with a murder: an elderly woman in a wheelchair (Isa Miranda) is moving through her dark mansion as a storm comes up, when a black-gloved killer throws a garrote around her neck, kicks the chair away, and leaves her to slowly strangle. So far, so good: though the death itself is a bit unusually punishing to watch, this is normal territory in nearly every respect. And then, things start to get a bit unusual: the killer's identity is revealed almost immediately: he's a man (Giovanni Nuvoletti) with a mustache and cruel eyes, he's about the same age as his victim, and just right about the same time we register all of this, he gets stabbed to death by another black-gloved killer: and the blood pumping out of his wound and covering the knife is our first sign that this film is going to turn the violence up to 11, or at least what they would have called "11" back in 1971.

The next few scenes introduce us to our generous cast of characters and help to clarify what we just saw: the woman was Contessa Federica Donati, and the man was her husband Filippo; she has been declared a suicide, and apparently he hasn't been found at all, given how many people are very careful to mention that he's "missing". Not that anybody believes that Federica would kill herself, mind you. Anyway, the cast of important people is large by any standard, but positively DeMillian for a cheap murder mystery. We've got Franco Ventura (Chris Avram), and his secretary and lover Laura (Anna Maria Rosati); Ventura was the countess's lawyer, and it's he who gives us the backstory of the dead people's names, and further informs us that with Federica's death, a nasty legal situation is about to grow around the extremely large and valuable patch of undeveloped land she owned along the bayside; he is off to pay a visit to the bay, in the hopes of paying bargain basement rates to get all that land for himself. Next up are the bay's permanent residents: these include Simone (Claudio Camaso, under the name Claudio Volenté), a fisherman introduced in the unforgettable act of biting an octopus to death, although I hope to God the octopus was already dead when they filmed; and the Fosettis, Paolo (Leopoldo Trieste) - an entomologist with a seething hatred for Filippo Donati, who wanted to pave over such a pristine tract of untouched wildnerness - and his wife Anna (Laura Betti), the film's designated Cassandra, who reads tarot cards and talks about danger. When we meet these people, we also meet the couple spying on them through field glasses: Renata (Claudine Auger) and her husband Alberto (Luigi Pistilli). Renata is Filippo Donati's daughter (though, it's implied, not Federica's), and she hopes to find out the truth about what's gone on with this "suicide" and "disappearance", and if that means she gets the deed to the property, well, she's not going to complain. Just because that's not enough people to keep track of, a group of teens shows up: Luca (Guido Boccaccini) and Roberto (Roberto Bonanni), and their girlfriends (Paola Rubens and Brigitte Skay), whose names I never quite caught, and they're hoping to party and screw in the remains of the old nightclub that was the only product of Donati's attempt to develop the woods into a major resort.

With that colossal mess of people set up like ninepins, we can get to the two important matters of the film: killing them all off, and trying to figure out who is doing the killing. The latter of these issues is not as disposable as is typical for its genre; in fact, one of the unique elements of Reazione a catena in relationship to the great bulk of gialli is that it presents a complex mystery that can be followed every single step of the way, and at the end of the movie everything makes perfect linear sense. In fact, uniquely among not the gialli but maybe among all horror films ever made, the murder mystery in Reazione a catena is possibly its most interesting element. Bava throws what feel like dozens of clues our way, establishing that every single person in the movie has motivations for committing the crimes, suggesting at various points that this person or that was absent, getting unexplained wounds on their body - and at other places proving that a person could not possibly have committed a certain murder, because we know they were elsewhere. By the time it resolves itself, even the dimmest viewer will have guessed most of what's coming, simply because there aren't enough people alive by then, and there's only one way for it to all make sense among the last three or four people to remain alive. And God bless Bava for not giving us some stupid twist ending just to make sure that we couldn't figure it all out - though he does put in a shock at the end, of an entirely different sort.

It's a sly, sometimes witty story punctuated by moments of violence that have lost much of their impact in these latter days of more-convincing fake blood and gaudy post-Jason movie death scenes, but nevertheless still startle. This, no doubt, is because Mario Bava was a properly great filmmaker, whereas the hundreds of people responsible for splatter and slasher movies in the last 30 years have been, in the main, soulless hacks. The death scenes in Reazione a catena aren't just showstopping - though they are a little showstopping, at that - they're as stylish as anything else in Bava's noted career, and even in the lingering effects of bubbling, gushing blood that can be found in the unexpurgated cuts of the film, there's no sense he wants to gross us out in the slighest. There's a feeling you get that differentiates a truly mean-spirited act of cinematic violence from a film where the violence is presented with a wink, the director stopping the movie for a few seconds to ask, "Look what we can do; isn't that cool?" and Bava is unquestionably the kind of filmmaker who's much more comfortable in the second mode. He was always foremost an entertainer whose very darkest thrillers were still pretty frolicsome; Hitchcock's Italian son though he was, he never made any gestures toward's Hitch's darkest, most nihilistic efforts like Vertigo or Frenzy. And as a filmmaker who largely eschewed graphic violence, it seems right that his most aggressive step in that direction should be so determined to be as un-brutal as the image of a man getting a machete in his face could be. You need only compare that machete in the face to the same effect in Friday the 13th, Part 2 to understand why one is one is playful and one is just angry and sad.

And since I've accidentally given myself that segue, how about those Friday the 13th pictures, anyway? Now, Reazione a catena is not necessarily the kind of film that in the moment of its release would have seemed like a rule-breaker in any way, although in numerous respects it is certainly a bit eccentric. Yet history decided elsewise, and what in 1971 was just another giallo, albeit a particularly well-made and particularly violent one has a completely different provenance: for Reazione a catena is, after a fashion, the first slasher movie. Think about it: present a whole lot of people, drop them in an isolated place, watch them die one after the other in violent death scenes that are given tremendously disproportionate weight. That's the key difference between Reazione a catena and the other gialli and the Agatha Christie stories that formed the model for most of them: the number and intensity of the deaths. And, just for fun, Reazione a catena has an unusually clear early example of the notorious "Sex=Death" theme of the '80s slashers: remember those four teens: one of them dies right after skinny-dipping, and two are killed at the same time by a single spear - another note stolen by Friday the 13th, Part 2. Honestly, the differences between Reazione a catena and the slashers are rather subtle distinctions: Bava's cast is much older and the film is far more invested in its mystery plotline, and Bava as cinematographer is infinitely more gifted than anyone responsible for the look of any slasher film after Dean Cundey shot Halloween in 1978. Insofar as Reazione a catena remains firmly in the giallo camp, it's primarily because of its visual quality, which isn't quite as hallucinatory as most of them, but is still full of beautiful and poetic grace notes: just look at Bava's POV shots (from both the killer's and the victims perspective) to see where horror melts away and Impressionism kicks in.

And, of course, since there weren't any slashers yet in 1971, Reazione a catena is a giallo pretty much be default.

I haven't made it at all clear, nor do I suppose that I've tried, but Reazione a catena is one of my favorite mystery-horror-suspense-whatever pictures of all time: only Argento's Suspiria contends with it for the title of the finest of all Italian horror films, and as much as I adore all of Bava's output, nothing else he did has quite the same joie de vivre. It's immaculately constructed, filled to the brim with well-developed characters that are simply delightful to hate, and it's got some of the loveliest location photography of any movie from the whole decade. By all accounts, it was Bava's favorite among his films, and it's not at all hard to see why. Everything works in Reazione a catena, from the broadest elements of the story arc to the tiniest details of mise en scène, and if only one-hundredth of the films it influenced had one-hundredth of its perfection, the horror film would be a much less disreputable and more wonderful thing than has been the case.

Body Count: 13, spread across (SPOILER ALERT SKIP AHEAD A BIT FOR GOD'S SAKE) five different killers. Modes of death ranging from a couple of wholly bloodless chokings to a spurting decapitation and a man left to die rather awfully slowly on a spear. Also, a octopus that I hope was already dead, and a beetle writing on a pin, because once again, Italian horror filmmakers don't have any compunctions about killing animals.

I am not certain but that this film has the largest percentage of people who appear onscreen - 15 in all - to end up dead, in the whole history of body-count pictures

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. Lots of blood, but it's presented with such good cheer and brio that I can't imagine somebody actually feeling offended by it.

1 comment:

Neil Fulwood said...

I first saw this film under its UK release title 'Bay of Blood' - cut (rather hamfistedly) and on a very grainy VHS copy - but nonetheless Bava's genius shone through.

Brilliant review, Tim - one of your best. You've more than done it justice.